Thursday, February 26, 2009

Album: Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 / Goodnight Oslo

Artist: Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3

Title: Goodnight Oslo

In the future, this probably won't be the first RH album I'd reach for — maybe not even the sixth — but any denigration I make has to be seen in the context of a pretty decent canon. And perhaps also weighed against fairly high expectations following on 06's exceptional Olé! Tarantula wherein RH and co. got a Soft Boys-esque rockin' groove on. This time, the mood is mellower and more restrained. If anything, it actually sounds as if the band is channelling their inner Sadies (esp. on "Hurry For The Sky"). To say that Hitchcock focuses on the usual themes is no slight, and nor is the fact that he deals with them in a slightly more down-to-earth manner than usual. The worst I can say is that this is a pleasant but slight entry in the discography, but still very listenable.

Track Picks: 3- "Saturday Groovers", 4 - "I'm Falling"

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Album: Gentleman Reg / Jet Black

Artist: Gentleman Reg

Title: Jet Black

A long time coming and much-anticipated — for too long now being a Gentleman Reg fan has meant merely seeing him in his man-about-town role at other people's gigs and analysing how scraggly his beard had gotten. Happily, after the wait, this pretty much lives up to the expectations put on it. Sonically, this is Reg's best sounding album, and very much a delight to listen to. The songs themselves nearly measure up to high-water mark Darby & Joan, meaning, on the whole, this is a rather good disc. Starting off with some solid rockers (with a few glam-y touches here and there), it really hits its peak in the middle with the back to back knockouts "Rewind" and "We're in a Thunderstorm" — the former boosted by Katie Sketch's vox and the latter a disco quiet stormer that would make a good comedown from H&LA's "Blind". Also a lot of pleasant instrumental textures that would assure that this would fit in amongst its A&C brethren. I might've trimmed one or two of the slower, quieter numbers, but overall a strong effort. Hopefully the next one won't be so long in coming.

Track Picks: 6 - "Rewind", 7 - "We're in a Thunderstorm"

Monday, February 23, 2009

Gig: Bruce Peninsula / Alex Lukashevsky / Snowblink

Bruce Peninsula (Alex Lukashevsky / Snowblink)

Polish Combatants Hall. Sunday, February 22, 2009

Managed to have a nice nap before heading out for this, which I think improved my disposition a bunch. Sunday nights I generally prefer to finish off the chores, turn off the computer and so on, and go to bed nice and early and read for a while. Get a good night's sleep to set up the new week, etc. etc.

But alas, around the time I'd normally be climbing under the covers, there I was pulling my longjohns on to head out. Made me feel mildly grumpy as I was leaving, and made gig-attendance about the last thing I felt like doing, but by the time I got down to Beverly Street, I was in a pleasantly drowsy mood. Which I think made me receptive to what was going on. Sometimes amped-up razor sharpness is the best frame of mind for a gig, and sometimes languorous sleepiness works out well.

Because I was putting off leaving, only caught about half of opener Snowblink - the pleasantly folksy Daniela Gesundheit on guitar, supplemented by Dan Goldman providing extra instrumentation. The Hall was already rather full, so I just stood with the latecomers near the back and soaked in what I could. Her stuff was okay - not entirely unlike, perhaps, early Sarah McLaughlin at times. Finished with a nice piece using looped backing vocals.

During the between-set hubbub, I managed to move in a nab a seat and settle down to appreciate the hall and crowd around me. As with last week's Wavelength show, I felt relaxed in this room. This gig was set up in an all-seating configuration, and maybe that helped to bring out a pretty mixed crowd: the usual core of indie-show types, but supplemented by a lot of people who looked like they probably went to a lot more shows ten tears ago, and then the parental/elder crowd on top of that. The stage itself was nicely done up with ribbons and vines strung above the stage, which under the old curtains, turned it into a sort of garden gazebo set.

Alex Lukashevsky and his crew took the stage. I mostly knew him by his reputation as a twisted pop genius and work with various Blocks-y bands. He accompanied himself on guitar, mostly in a gentle fingerpicking manner and was backed up with two vocalists. The ornate vocal arrangements were the most distinctive element of the performance, at its most florid sounding like a rococo Swingle Singers arrangement of an xmas carol, but usually more reined in that that. Special note should be made of the female singer (whose name'd be worth looking up) who had tremendous range and a diversity of sounds from pretty harmonies to a theramin-like trill. It sounded like Lukashevsky had some interestingly idiosyncratic lyrics, but were it just him plus guit, I dunno if it'd've held my attention. The vox really made the set. Rather enjoyable.

Then the to-ing and fro-ing of getting ready for the main set while I reflected on Bruce Peninsula. I'd seen them live once previously (late '07, opening for The Acorn) and left the show not particularly convinced they were for me. Listening to their alb last week, I was still mostly on the same lines, rather able to appreciate that there is quality and originality in what they do, but not entirely moved by it. Meanwhile, various members (Peninsulans?) came on stage to tune up, call to the back of the room to wrangle other members and then pass out cupcakes. Cupcakes mean love, so that's one good way to win over an audience.

As they took the stage, I found out that the mild-mannered guy that was sitting beside me was a bit of a shrieker, letting out a few anticipatory whoops, and then once the band was on stage, shouting our "more Barker!" at regular intervals, apparently a paean to the bass player. But he kept himself quiet during the songs, so it's all good, I guess.

As the band played, I found myself enjoying it fairly well. Just the right combination, I guess, of that relaxed sleepiness, live spectacle, volume, and good sound. With eleven members on stage, there was a lot going on, but everything was clear in the mix, so props to whoever was doing the sound. I think the band's earthy throb in the live setting provided a bit more groove to frame the voices — whatever it was, I was suitably impressed and much more won over by them than I'd been previously.

The band were having a good time, humbled by the turnout and thanking everyone under the sun, and occasionally having to untangle instruments from the ribbons. They did tunes from the album, a good gospel shouter from last summer's 7", a new one, as well as a cracking cover of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" as an encore.

So I left pretty satisfied. There are some local bands that I'm willing to go see over and over. I can't say I'd bump BP up to that category, but I would see 'em again, and I do wish 'em well.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Album: Bruce Peninsula / A Mountain is a Mouth

Artist: Bruce Peninsula

Title: A Mountain is a Mouth

I was worried going in that the vibe was going to be all New Main Street Singers, but fortunately it was closer to The New Christy Minstrels. And I was even more worried that the choir was going to be more gimmick than high concept, which also wasn't the case. But, even with my initial fears laid to rest, I can't say this totally won me over. Although I can appreciate all the formal elements - the songs, voices, arrangements - it just doesn't hang together in a way that excites me. Maybe it's that their approach to the folk tradition feels slightly stiff and earnest, but this just doesn't swing. Which is perfectly valid, of course, but doesn't make me an immediate fan.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Album: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart / s/t

Artist: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

Title: s/t

Perhaps if I were cooler fifteen years ago than this might be less exciting to me now. On the other hand, I do find some simple pleasures to be evergreen, so who knows? In any case, the poppy tunes and buzzing guitars maintain a nice balance of sweet and grit. Not remarkable, perhaps, but rather pleasurable.

Track Pick: 7 - "Everything with You"

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Gig: Wavelength 450 (Saturday)

Gig: Wavelength 450 ($100 / Brides / Hooded Fang / The Luyas / Element Choir)

Polish Combatants Hall. Saturday, February 14, 2009.

With this getting a buncha press (incl an eye cover story) I had no idea how early the crowds were gonna show up, but I was having a quiet evening anyway and erred on the side of getting there responsibly early. So I managed to snag a chair and settle in with a dirt cheap drink in the rec hall-type surroundings of the Polish Combatants Hall. Not a bad place to see a gig, even if it sometimes has a bit of a musty basement smell. Sadly, they took down all the unit insignia banners on the upper reaches of the walls for some reason.

It turned out to be a robustly full house, with, I think, a healthy number of folks like me, who appreciate the idea of Wavelength, but can't make it out for shows on a Sunday night. But also some just making the scene, out for something that was "hot" and on eye's cover. Or so I'm guessing — maybe it was that subset of people who were up near the front but still remained committed to talking loudly with their friends. Frustrating.

Based on the blurbs, I wasn't sure that a large improv choir was going to be, well, good, but I was pleasantly surprised. Starting off like the soundtrack of the journey into the monolith at the end of 2001 crossed with a dadaist tone poem, Element Choir's performance branched into a wide-ranging exploration of the range of noises the human voice can make. The conductor ran the choir in a manner that made me think of performers with laptops and looping pedals — picking out one range of the group, giving a gestural signal, and letting them make that noise while turning to tweak the noise that another section was making, and building up various textures playing off each other. It was a rather warm sort of sensation. Felt human.

Stowed my bag and jacket on my seat and went up closer to the stage as each of the bands proper came on. The Luyas were okay. The vocalist was compelling, but the band's sonic approach didn't do much for me, eschewing the easy things (like melodies) for something a bit more adventurous, leaving a sort of spare, deconstructed song-sense.

Hooded Fang were sort of just the opposite, all poppy and happy and dance-friendly. Which disposed me much more towards them. Co-ed and seven members deep with a whole bunch of keybs and horns and tinkling glocks, a facile comparison might be to Los Campesinos!, but without their Cure-ish undertone. Perhaps hitting closer to the mark would be to think of it as something like widescreen A&C-style pop (Stars, or BSS, a little) covering The Bicycles. Regardless, they had good songs and a joyful attitude. I bought their EP at the merch table and would keep my eye out to see them again.*

Brides were enjoyable enough, but any more than the short set they played would have been too much for me. Pick your identifier — post-punk/no wave, probably. Which is to say a rhythm section once-removed from hardcore roots, but tending occasionally to shift into technically tricky shifting time signatures, etc. I liked 'em best when they avoided that, and stuck to less chords. They had a skronky sax player who looked disconcertingly like Gary Busey in The Buddy Holly Story.

$100 was a band that won me over last year, and I ultimately ended up seeing them twice in the full band configuration, and twice more as an acoustic duo. I'd been excited by the fact that some of the best songs I'd heard them play were already moving beyond their fine Forest of Tears album. Perhaps it was the fact that I was starting to wear down, or just my heightened expectations that left me with the sense that this wasn't quite as good as I'd seen them do previously. (Or perhaps the fact that they were playing, I think, with a different rhythm section than I recall.) And by this point, I was surrounded, it seemed, by yappy people. So I wasn't totally feelin' it. But it was going okay enough. Though when they got to the stately, gorgeous waltz of "Nothing's Alright", Simone commanded the crowd to slow dance, and folks all around started to comply. When one of a group of yammering women to my left looked past me to grab a guy on my right to sway together, and her friends started talking even louder, I decided to move back for some peace of mind. But the spell was broken, and all at once I was feeling tired and antsy to go catch the subway, so I kept a moving back to my chair, threw on my jacket and split. I had a bit of wiggle time to catch the train, but I didn't want to miss it.

All in all, though, a satisfying night. One thing that came out in that eye story is that one year hence, with the tenth anniversary, Wavelength will cease as a Sunday night thing and transform into... something else. If that something else is shows like this, then I'd probably end up at more Wavelength overall.

* Weirdly, I managed to be sitting once again right next to a bunch of Band Parents, who were busily sizing up the competition and comparing their offspring to The Luyas. "Oh, they were much better than that first bunch," said one, "they sound like a real band."

Friday, February 13, 2009

Gig: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Depreciation Guild / Don Mills)

Lee's Palace. Thursday, February 12, 2009.

A "sad" start to the evening. I hadn't quite killed enough time before getting down to Bloor St., so I ducked into Sonic Boom. Given the stacks of as yet unfiled CD's on my floor, I'm aware how little I need to buy any more right now.1 So, of course, I immediately come across stuff. They had used copies of the two just-out Volcano Suns re-issues which I was intending to price next time I was at Soundscapes. And a Bush Tetras comp, which I'd been looking for for a bit. But the real find was the first Zumpano alb, which I've been looking for at used places for years. Result!

Anyways, into the show, arriving early, staking out a spot to stand where I could cache bag + jacket. Unusually, it's been six weeks since I've been to a show, and I looked around the murky depths, thinking "have I missed anything?" Oh well, after the January doldrums, things'll now be picking up again.

The first act were some young locals stuck on the bill named Don Mills. Not so good. Musically, they managed to get by okay, in a sort of "we've listened to The National" kind of way, but the frontman was atrocious - all off-key, second-hand Springsteen-isms accompanied by slightly tragic shoulder-twistin' dance moves. Really uninteresting, though they did bring out some rowdy friends to cheer for them.2 The best thing going for it was the fact that one of the guitarists' parents were standing beside me, and the dad kept slagging off the singer as well. One of the guitarists went by, and the dad stopped him to congratulate them, but also said, "you need to get that guy an anchor."3

Main tour support was a NY trio called Depreciation Guild. Two scrawny guys who looked like they were sent from central casting as "New York Indie Rockers" plus the drummer from THOBPaH on guit. They did effects-heavy shoegazey guitar rock, with their hook being they also had squiggly rhythmic noises provided by an old Nintendo. The sound was lousy at first (and, overall, it was an off night for everyone in the sonic department) as everything was squished together into a tiny little range. Once the mix improved, it was reasonably enjoyable for the middle third of the set. Not great, but okay.

Then our headliners, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, who looked exactly like their music sounds - slightly nerdy/slightly cuddly, who were happy to be there and visibly impressed by the turnout and affection from the crowd. (and, yeah, somebody did a good job getting the word out, as the show was upsized from Neutral to Lee's, and the place was pleasantly full.) They did a short set, maybe 40 minutes, and it was generally solid. Some of the same lousy mix issues, I think, although given the band's sort of muddled sonic aesthetic, it's hard to say entirely. But they got their songs across well. I was glad I went.

1 Although, that being said, there's a couple things coming out soon that I am eager to get my hands on -- that Red Hot comp, and the new Robyn Hitchcock alb.

2 Typical of them was this one fellow in a knitted homemade sweater whose design seemed to be based on the Old Spice sailboat logo.

3 I fully expected him to conclude the thought by saying "Knowing a little Conversational French, I think I know something about the music industry."

2008 Concerts — Rock’n’roll Meant Well

By my count I went to about 80 gigs in 2008, ranging from quick, stripped-down in-stores to all-day festivals. Most of what I saw was good, and rather a lot was really good. Given, however, that a lot of them fell into the category of "stood in a dank bar and watched band play", there isn't as much to say about them. Because besides the relative goodness of the music (which is either subjectively enjoyed or technically appreciated — neither of which I'm particularly well-equipped to describe), it's also that everything else going on that combines to make a show into a memory — and it's usually the everything else that makes for a better story. Of all the shows I saw, these ones stick out for one reason or another: some for what was happening on the stage; some less so.

The Airfields / Love Kills

2008-02-02 (Sat)

Sneaky Dee's

CD release gig on a cold Friday night, we headed down to Sneaks after taking in some of The Weakerthans set at Nathan Phillips Square. Inside, it was a pretty full house and the average age was pretty young, a very university crowd1. I'd caught bit of sets by the Airfields as other people's openers a couple times, and liked them enough to want to see them as headliners. On stage, the band played a rawer, more shoegaze-y sound that lent urgency but belied the depth of the songwriting on their album2. The bartender from Communist's Daughter played trumpet with them for a couple songs. Definitely a a show that left me a believer and eager to see them again. Which turned out not to happen, as shortly after this show, they more-or-less seemed to just disappear from the face of the earth.

Love Kills / Yellow Wood / People Noise / Pooma

2008-03-08 (Friday)

Rancho Relaxo (CMW)

Liked this band enough seeing them open at The Airfields show I figured I'd check 'em out again. Which led me to pick this Friday night CMW showcase. I wasn't part of the wristband-totin' hordes and just figured to stick in one place all night, so this was as good as anything. The night is most notable for being the only gig I snuck into all year — a rather pointless feat given that I actually had a ticket.3

As for the gig itself, People Noise managed to distinguish themselves by the fact that the band members went from table to table after playing, desperately trying to flog merch so they could afford gas money to get back to Kentucky. Pooma were the Buzz Attractors of the night, a Finnish combo doing a sorta widescreen ambient/electronically pulsating rock thing that seemed a bit out-of-place crammed into the tiny stage. On showcase nights like this, it's always amusing when staying put to watch the crowd size suddenly balloon for one band that someone, somewhere had hotly tipped, then quiet back down again. They were... nothing special.

Love Kills possibly had the bad luck to be JAMC revivalists at the same time The Raveonettes were more successfully exploiting the same shtick — feedback-laden pop songs, sunglasses on stage, black leather, stand-up drummer with kettle drum. They had some good material and were terrifically bracing in twenty minute bursts, though that didn't stop them from breaking up not too much later.

Laura Barrett

The Breeders / Flash Lightnin'

The Pigeon Detectives / Sunriser, Rock Plaza Central, Yoav

2008-03-09 (Saturday)

Soundscapes / The Phoenix (CMW) / Lee's Palace (CMW)

Three reasonably good shows but I felt adequately rock'n'roll given that I went to them all on the same day. On a mushy, snowstormy day, no less.

One of, um, four times I would see her in 20084, Laura Barrett played a pleasant in-store set in a fairly full Soundscapes, the windows fogging up from the crowd within while the beaming kalimbist, backed with the bf on banjo and "rockenspiel" floated through a short set of new and old stuff. Some bands are fine to see in a bar, but Laura Barrett ain't one of them.

The Breeders, however, did a nice job of filling up the spaces in The Phoenix. Kim Deal is someone who knows that good rock'n'roll requires a bit of sloppiness to it, and The Breeders' career has sort of been a series of gestures on one side or the other of that edge between the good sloppy and bad. On this night, the band was well-rehearsed and tight (well, relatively) and confident in playing the material but, being freshly on the road, not bored of it. A fairly full house, and while there were undoubtedly no shortage of nostalgia-seekers there, at least they were a more refined sort who were as enthusiastic to hear "Iris" as "Cannonball". The new material was also fairly well received, helped by the fact that it's mostly pretty good stuff. All told, an entirely satisfying experience.

The nightcap was a mixed bag, but on the whole okey. Notably memorable (and thus worthy of a spot on this list) was Yoav, who was one of the two or three worst things I saw at a gig all year. This dude played acoustic guitar with a looping pedal, his "hook" being that his songs were essentially dance music. Coming off like an A&R wet dream, eminently marketable to women who want beats with their sensitive, James Blunt-ish pop. Lamentable, insipid stuff.

The headlining Pigeon Detectives were far more entertaining, even if they were just as much of a marketable pop product (albeit more in the "NME approved" vein). Disposably hooky contempo British guitar rock, they were distinguished by the fact that they were as eager as hell to entertain with a greatest hits assortment of rock'n'roll swagger moves, and never acted like they were on anything less than the grandest stadium stage. This was especially true of vocalist Matt Bowman, who primped and fussed like Jagger and twirled his microphone cord like Daltry. I couldn't ever imagine wanting to listen to their music, but this was the sort of this that was enormously fun for forty-five minutes.

"The Kalimba Summit" (feat. Matt Smith, Laura Barrett, Njacko Backo, Kahil El'Zabar)

2008-03-28 (Friday)

Tranzac (Main Hall)

The Tranzac's not a bad place for a gig. Rather than a bar it feels like an old community centre turned into a rec room, and if a little ratty around the edges, it feels more 'lived in' than 'dank'. The event was a co-presentation of the Music Gallery and Wavelength, trying to break down some of the walls between the indie community and other musical scenes. Hence the cross-cutting element being the suddenly-fashionable plinky little thumb piano.

Matt Smith (who operates under the nom de guerre Nifty) was first up, operating as a one-man orchestra, layers of loops built up via laptop and a table of gear as well as his kalimba, finally adding several strata of vocals. It was decent enough, but for my money once you've seen someone do this once, it always sounds kinda the same – plus I cannot stop myself from counting the bars in my head, waiting to get to sixteen for the sequence to begin again.

Laura Barrett is pretty much the one who single-handedly made the kalimba a big thing in the Toronto scene. Her set was as much fun as ever.5 Njacko Backo, a local (via Cameroon) musician, was entertaining and full of sudden yelps and sing-song bursts, but tried a little hard to get a sit-down kind of crown into a stand-up-and-dance kind of mood.

The treat and genuine surprise of the night was Kahil El'Zabar. A master percussionist and AACM member, he played a wide-ranging solo set on a series of kalimbas and other instruments, every motion filled with an easy natural rhythm. At one point, feeling the vibe to be just so, he asked the audience's indulgence and launched into an unaccompanied soul song not unlike something by Gil-Scott Heron. The entire set was played with effortless joy and was quite mesmerizing.

As El'Zabar called everyone out on stage for a grand finale, I whipped out my notepad and quickly traced the degrees of separation, of stages shared and jams jammed: Charlie Parker > Miles Davis > John Coltrane > Pharoah Sanders > Kahil El'Zabar > Laura Barrett. Rather impressive.

“Concrete Toronto Music” (feat. CCMC, Sandro Perri & Tony Dekker, Smith & Wiernik, Knurl, Erik Ross)

2008-05-25 (Sunday)

Polish Combatants’ Association Hall

Celebrating the Concrete Toronto book with a show in one of the buildings from its pages, The Polish Combatants Association is sort of a cheerful bunker6 and inside has a cool lobby, like a 70's retro-futuristic version of a Legion hall, with regalia and old uniforms on display under a mirrored ceiling, and military-style paintings throughout and large versions of unit insignia etc.

The first act of the night was the dodgiest: an opera singer accompanied by solo saxophone performing a piece with libretto composed of texts solicited for the occasion by three local writers including Carl Wilson and Darren O'Donnell. Zoilus' was not so good, mostly phonetic plays on words based on the phrase "Concrete Toronto" ("Crone, rent to coot. Crone, contort toe./Not torn to coerce, retort on cot once"). O'Donnell, who I'm generally suspicious of, was more successful, a piece written from concrete's point of view ("Skin your knee on me/ I want to be warm")

Then the part that I was doubtful about going in, a noise artist called Knurl, who did this thing actually playing chunks of concrete, hooked up with contact mics and run through a table of effects. It started off with scratchy friction noises being looped around, with pictures of "smooth" concrete buildings like City Hall projected behind him. Then it shifted to a blurry pic of the bottom of the Gardiner, on Lakeshore. Which slowly revealed itself as a moving shot from a car on T.O.'s concrete highways, heading up to the 401 and back down the DVP. As it went along, things got increasingly abrasive and extremely loud – I was really glad I had my earplugs, I tell you what. It was loud enough that a fair number of people left the room during the performance, esp. once he started adding distortion, and some effect that, as he pulled one piece of concrete off another, it created a shrieking feedback loop. Though the piece ran a little long, it was pretty impressive.

Then two dudes on laptops, one doing sounds, the other images. This fell into the problem of live music from dudes with laptops: I never actually figured out which was doing which part, and what, besides hitting "play", the music guy was doing. It was generally pleasant electronica, the visuals a meditation on the subway bridge over the Rosedale Ravine, between Castle Frank and Sherborne stations.

And then CCMC (on this night standing for "Canadian Concrete Music Company"). The venerable CCMC's basic lineup is Michael Snow, piano/synth; John Oswald on sax; and a poet named Paul Dutton on vox/muttering/harmonica. To me, the closest sort of thing I could relate them to would be the least rockin'/most out there side of Pere Ubu – or some of Dave Thomas' weird solo stuff, as Dutton had a similarly sputtering sort of style. He'd brought up a page of notes and basically riffed on the Concrete Toronto book. In paraphrase, his rant was something like "They say concrete is good for you! It has calcium. So eat the concrete! The Gardiner is made out of concrete – so eat the Gardiner! That's the only way we'll ever get rid of it!" And riffing on about other concrete landmarks and the positive effects of consuming them. Then, holding up a fist-sized lump of concrete: "This is the appetizer! And this [holding up the Concrete Toronto book] is the menu!" All the while, sax skwonking and piano rattling behind, with interludes of analog-synth sawtooth static. Quite good fun.

Closed out by Tony Dekker/Sandro Perri, commissioned to write some sensitive songs about their relationship to concrete geography. They had three new ones, plus played GLS' "I Will Never See the Sun". Tony had a nice new song called "Concrete Heart" which was quite winning. Perri had a requiem for Exhibition Stadium called "Mistake by the Lake". A warm hug of an ending for a memorable night.

Mary Margaret O’Hara / Johnny & The G-Rays, The B Girls / Parachute Club

2008-06-07 (Saturday)

McCaul Street Stage, OCAD (Luminato)

McCaul Street was shut down and the shadow of the Tabletop acted as a benign version of Burns' sun-blocker that was ideal for an outdoor show. Billed as a tribute to the Queen St. W. scene of the 80's, the street was full of a greyer shade of hipster (leather jackets, sagging bellies) forming a little community of mutual recognitions and impromptu reunions. Openers were original punks Johnny & The G-Rays, who rocked out with a genial "us old farts still have it" kind of edge. They were joined by The B Girls for a few numbers, who brought a crusty kind of happiness to the stage. Good fun.

I was mostly there to see Mary Margaret O'Hara, out for a rare gig. I've never been a giant fan of Miss America, but I figured this was too unusual an occasion to miss. As it turned out, it was everything I was hoping for and more. I knew MMO'H has a rep as an, er, eccentric sort, but she was six times as crazy as I'd have guessed. Or perhaps 'daffy' is more apt. Never coming across merely affecting the role of an autistic diva, Mary Margaret just comes across as one of those rare sorts whose world is just a couple degrees askew from ours. Wearing a yellow librarian-style dress with a picture of Handsome Ned pinned to her hip, she proceeded to... participate in the gig, but always a beat off-sync, conceptually. Songs would start, and she would decide that the mood didn't strike her to sing that song. Sometimes the tempos weren't exactly as she wanted. She'd occasionally take notice of the crowd and recognize and wave to someone, then return her internal world. And then when she was done, it all just sort of ended abruptly. This was marvelously fascinating entertainment.

The nominal headliners were the Parachute Club, and I hung around mostly because J.'s uncle, who is pretty cool, plays guit in the band. It was a fine enough set, and best when they brought up some guests, including Lillian Allen and local reggae godfather Mojah. Though I find their politics of ameliorating uplift mildly grating, it connected well with the crowd of aging raging activist types.7 It was a pleasing afternoon and made me think ahead to 2025, when I'll be amongst the nostalgia seekers at the free Broken Social Scene gigs, thinking that it all didn't seem that long ago.8

Grant Hart / Kingdom Shore / Sandro Perri / Basement Arms

2008-06-08 (Sunday)

P.S. Mirvish Village (SoundAxis on the Street Stage)

Got to Mirvish Village in time to catch the end of Kingdom Shore, basically an abrasive string quartet augmented by a guy with a laptop and table of electronics treating the sound. I dug what I heard.

I used to be uninterested in Sandro Perri, given that I found his electronic/ambient stuff as Polmo Polpo to be rather dull, but in his current phase as an avant singer-songwriter, I think he's starting to win me over. He played an old Gibson and kick drum, and his band ran drums, tuba, and keyb. His songs aren't overly hooky, but they're melodic enough to get over.

Grant Hart came on with one guitar, a borrowed amp and no setlist, and following a pitch from some reps from Democrats Abroad that he'd brought over from the street fair, proceeded to crank out tunes as he felt 'em or as people called them out. Hart looked every inch the aging, possibly impoverished punk: tore up sneakers, slouchy jeans, white t-shirt (reading "INDIE MY ASS") with Camels tucked away in the sleeve and a Gumby-esque handkerchief on his head. He had a sort of crusty persona, going back and forth between trying to be endearing to the crowd (chatting politely with one woman's elderly mother) and abrasive (being slightly unkind to the poor soul who gauchely requested "Celebrated Summer").

He played a good selection of his Husker tunes ("Books About UFO's", "Terms of Psychic Warfare", "Don't Want to Know if You are Lonely", "Green Eyes" and more) and some good-soundin' solo tunes that I didn't recognize. Once he got going, he just kept throwing out more songs as they came to him, eventually well overrunning his timeslot. Eventually, I could see the soundman going over to Jonny Dovercourt, and gesticulating like "can you get this guy off the stage?", especially as the dark storm clouds were starting to roll in. At one point, he unplugged his guit from the amp like he was done, but seemed to think better of it, plugged back in and did about three more songs. At one point, he muttered, kinda to himself, "Now I should play a Dave Grohl song — why not? He appropriated everything from me."

I decided to stick around for the final act, Basement Arms, who weren't really known to me. I can't really improve on Dovercourt's description of them as a mix of "Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart and the Muppets". As if on cue, just as they started, the sky opened and it just poured. The stage had a little canopy over it, though the keyboard player was set up mostly outside of it, so as the thunder roared and the others played on, he managed to tug his gear to safety, as the crew hastened to cover the amps, monitors and speakers with garbage bags. The played a spastic sort of funky gutter blues, the singer trading barbs with his buddies who were settled in on the patio of the restaurant beside Southern Accent. I enjoyed this completely. Eventually, it mostly stopped raining, but the wind picked up and felt like it was going to start blowing gear away, by which point the band had had enough.


2008-06-28 (Saturday)

Harbourfront Centre

On a pleasant Saturday afternoon I was, for one reason or another, weirdly tired when I made my way down to Harbourfront. But my sleepiness transformed into a sort of detached, focused mellowness that just let me lean back and soak in the orchestrated prettiness of my beloved Ohbijou. I'd seen the band my fair share of times, so it was a treat to see them showcasing some new material — even moreso given that the new stuff was very good. Sitting there in my drowsy haze as Casey Mecija sang songs about the Queen St. fire and riding the Bathurst bus, I felt – included in something. And then the pirates showed up.

In one of those mildly strange Toronto moments, a fairly large crowd of politely boisterous pirates made their way across the footbridge and headed eastward along the waterfront. Momentarily flummoxed by the procession, the band actually stopped for a minute just to watch the parade trail by before picking back up again.9

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 / Seckou Keita SKQ

2008-07-02 (Wed)

Harbourfront Centre

The Harbourfront people pulled off a veritable hat trick for their world music festival, with Seun Kuti, Lee Perry and Orchestra Baobab playing in the space of four nights. This one was, by a titch, the best of them, though they were all quite excellent.10 With a band filled with vets inherited from his father, Kuti mixed old and new songs in a veritable throbbing kettle of funk. Also inherited from the father: no small amount of charisma, contained in Seun's wiry, cocksure frame. The music was so sweaty I felt exhausted after this one.

Agnès Varda presenting La Point Courte / In Conversation With Lynda Barry

2009-09-09 (Tues) / 2008-10-25 (Saturday)

Jackman Hall (TIFF) / Harbourfront Centre (IFOA)

The two best punk shows of the year, both from strong, idiosyncratic women who, by making it up as they went, managed to create something fresh and unique.

Varda, in town for TIFF with her latest flick, took the time for this screening and discussion of her first: 1956's Point Courte, a wholly unusual mix of neorealist docudrama and mannered art-film that prefigured both nouvelle vague and Bergman's Persona. Not a masterpiece of a film, but certainly a visually striking one. The night was made by the on-stage interview that followed, where Varda discussed the difficulties and the freedom of not only inventing her filmic language from scratch, but the practical mountains that had to be climbed by an independent woman in France in the 50's to make a film.

Alt-cartoonist Lynda Barry was awesome, like a crazy aunt from a novel. Full of joy in the face of a grumpy and spiteful world, she talked about her work, but the real focus was on her method for teaching creative writing. You are a storyteller, is her message. There's no trick to turning the images inside us into stories, just a certain amount of practice and elbow grease. Along the way, she managed to burst into song, discuss favourite parlour tricks and attempt to deflate the techno-evangelistic hype around wind power.

The DIY gigs of the year.

Chad VanGaalen

2008-10-04 (Saturday)

Sonic Boom

Nuit Blanche started so promisingly. Two mistakes were made: first, I must have skipped lunch. I had some running around to do, and was downtown in the late afternoon for some chores. It was a fine day out, and I decided to walk from 'round Yonge and College to Sonic Boom for the evening's in-store performance, which I was going to before meeting up with friends for some pre-Nuit Blanche camaraderie. Somewhere around the time I was passing through U of T, it seemed like it might be a good idea to have a taste of the cheap brandy that I was carrying with me for fortifyin' warmth later on in the evening.

I'd had a couple more nips before settling into the basement at Sonic Boom, a warm glow beginning to radiate out from my belly to shine the light of happiness on everything around me. This may be one of the reasons that Chad VanGaalen, who I had no particular expectations of, totally rocked me.11 After opening with a plinky-banjo number that reminded me vaguely of his not-particularly-interesting Skelliconnection album, the band switched over to the electric gear and suddenly were swinging their Crazy Horse mojo. I pulled my water bottle of apricot brandy from my bag and drank a toast to them.

Which, by this point was sorta like "snowflake becomes blizzard", as I'd had enough sips to mostly make me think that it'd be a good idea to have another. Walking east on Bloor after the show, it was right about at the sunset time that marked the beginning of the night's activities, and I was full of a boozy glow, a warm feeling of amiability and beneficence for all mankind. Plus, I was feeling the poetic pulse of the city flowing around me enough that it seemed like a fucking good idea to duck behind Rochdale to walk down bpNichol Lane. And, of course, while I was there, it seemed the respectable thing to do to raise a toast to the Concrete Poet.12

So now as I emerged from the laneway onto Spadina, things were getting a little wobbly. I figured I was in good time to meet my friends, so I took an extra loop round Yorkville before finding them. I was walking past a gallery, and, on a whim, stepped inside. It turned out to be this weird, surrealist stuff, both as paintings and also in an animated form, designed to turn big flat-screened TVs into slowly transforming objets d'art. The artist and the gallery people were all standing around drinking their white wine, so I pulled out my brandy to raise a toast to them, and for some reason I ended up in a long, rambling conversation with the artist about whether or not allowing a programmer to create the algorithms to animate his paintings compromised his artistic intent. Or something like that. The brandy had imbued me with a (probably unwarranted) belief that I could converse functionally with him in French.13

The rest of the evening (the part that was supposed to be the "evening" part of the evening) is probably best not dwelled on, save to mention it involved, in between some large blank spots, being bounced from a respectable Yorkville resto and a subway trip home navigated with drunken triangulation (the conductor roused me at Downsview and I assured him I knew where I was headed; I woke up next at Glencairn and managed to stay awake enough to get off at Eg West and switch trains back northbound). Got home, and collapsed solidly into bed. My Nuit Blanche was done and I was in the forgiving void of unconsciousness by about 11:30 p.m.

The Sea and Cake / Death Vessel

2008-11-14 (Friday)

Lee’s Palace

Of this one, I might have the least to say. Sleek, sophisticated tunes by an unassuming looking group (looking more like well-turned-out professionals in one knowledge industry or another than rockers) whose stage presence was as unassuming as their appearance. And yet... so well-crafted, with a never-ending variety of rhythmic variations bubbling under the surface. Sometimes the sense of the event, or a wacky bit of banter, or who was in the crowd are the things that make the night, but on luckier occasions the music itself just folds itself around you and serves as its own final cause.

No Age / Silk Flowers / Soft Circle

2008-11-21 (Friday)

Lee’s Palace

Of course, sometimes the spirit and the antics of the band bring it home. I think the apt term for No Age might be "guileless" in that they seemed to be living out their ethos, cranking out their abrasive squalls of noise with a sort of aw-shucks humility, just happy to be there and glad to be playing somewhere they could get a decent falafel.14 A bunch of youngsters up front formed a good-natured little mosh pit and the band gave the sense that they were more hanging out with, rather than playing for, the crowd. That didn't stop guitarist Randy Randall15 from growing increasingly adventurous as the gig went on – by mid-point duckwalking out onto the drink rails in front of the stage (which wobbled but held up) and by the end jumping on and shimmying down the stage left banister (which wobbled and then snapped) – all without missing a note. Left me with a pleasing feeling that the kids are all right.

“transmission.LIVE” showcase (feat. Pacifika, Woodhands, Wendy McNeill, USS, Radio Radio, Final Flash, Winter Gloves)

2008-12-04 (Thursday)

The Storyeum (Vancouver BC)

By sheer luck, Frank had a contest for passes to this show in Vancouver during the week I was headed out to meet The Nephew, and by luck I won. So, got a ride from my sister down to Gastown (like pretty much everywhere in downtown Vancouver, eerily empty after dark) and found my way into The Storyeum, a museum-cum-tourist-attraction gone bust, and now serving as a fancy corporate event venue. A lovely space, probably a warehouse originally, high ceiling, brick walls and so forth. The event itself was some manner of industry conference with this as the musical showcase. Meaning on the one hand, sponsor logos were projected on walls all over, but on the other it was fancy and well run.

Got there just before the first act went on, a vaguely exotic worldbeat/MOR band. Not terrible, but slightly dull. Best thing going on was in the audience, a striking chick across the room that beguiled my eye. By the time the band finished, I was convinced I should step over to chat with her. I'd been rapidly mentally flipping through my ambits, wondering what possibly interesting thing I could say, and thinking, like, probably nothing. As I stood there, running through scenarios in my head, I saw her walking away from the stage area.

Shot down before even starting, I stood around for a couple self-castigating moments, feeling dumb and mopey. Unsure what to do with myself while waiting for the next act, I decided to wander. Following some people through a large doorway at the far end of the room, I suddenly realized there was a whole second room at hand, with a second stage. Toronto's Woodhands were on and must have just started. Woodhands are a band I'd not previously been won over by, their keytar-based DOR seeming a little silly, frankly. As I moved up to towards the stage, I spotted that same chick, mildly bopping away, and I fell in love a bit and felt simultaneously crushed by, well, mostly being myself. Just then frontman Dan Werb — a true rock'n'roll nerd if I've ever laid eyes on one and probably understanding these things— started chanting repetitively, "Why – can't – I / speak to you?" Sometimes at the right moment the most unlikely band will say the exact thing you're thinking.16

1 the ratio of gigs where I feel old to gigs where I feel median-aged is probably holding about the same; I guess I just feel that much older now than the young folk.

2 Ironically, the merch table was sold out of CD being released early in the night, and I would have gone home empty-handed, save for the fact in the loudness and confusion when I was at the merch table, pointing wildly at the wares on display, I was actually sold a copy of Love Kills' disc. Which turned out to be all good. I managed to score a copy of The Airfields' alb at Soundscapes and it became one of my year's minor favourites, full of jangle where the live show had a roar.

3 Not having gone to a gig at Rancho before, I was operating by guesswork on how to get up to the venue. There was no overt outside signage for the upstairs entrance, so I wondered if one had to go through the restaurant. Which seemed dubious once I was in there, but I decided to be audacious and took what were probably the kitchen stairs and entered, unquestioned, at the back of the room by the bar. Although this mild act of almost-stickin'-it-to-the-man made me feel, well, not bad-ass per se, I also wondered if I'd be to blame if the place went over capacity and the whole crowd perished in some manner of rock'n'roll fire/trampling. At least in such a scenario I'd know where the other stairwell was located.

4 I guess the total would be higher if I counted seeing her onstage for the Bicycles' "Last Schmaltz II" CD release show. And as a participant in the Rock Lottery. And the fact that she was in the crowd beside me on New Year's Eve. N.B.: not a stalker — just a fan.

5 Laurabee would rock my world even more the next time I saw her, at Reverb for a NxNE showcase, where she had a full band (strings! oboe!) and was suddenly playing lusciously-arranged versions of all the new material that I'd been hearing over many previous shows. It was a stunner of a set that sadly, did not fully translate to her album.

6 "institutional Brutalism on a residential scale," according to Concrete Toronto.

7 Michelle Landsberg was spotted shimmying in the crowd — that captures the Parachute Club demographic well.

8 The day actually had some bonus rock action, as afterwards, I walked over to Nathan Phillips Square to catch another the headliners of the funk festival at another Luminato stage. Saw James Brown's Soul Generals – a crew carried on by son Daryl Brown (a dead ringer for Proposition Joe) with some James Brown touring vets, including long-time JB Fred Thomas, who was a really cool customer. He has to be pushing 70, but was still having a good time on stage, and led the vocals on "Pass the Peas". Most vox from a soul singer named Barrington Henderson (a one-time replacement Temptation) but they switched around some. Undoubtedly a very tight band, and consummate pros. Then, a big crowd for Morris Day and the Time – down to three original members, I think, and no Jerome anymore, but playing very tight and funky. Morris looking pretty great for a guy just past 50. Played to the crowd very well. They brought up about a dozen women from the audience for a dance-off. Recognized more songs than I thought I would. A fun time for all.

9 This was another day of free concert hopping, as afterwards I made my way up to Pride and took a few acts on the big stage (including a Fritz Helder show marred by technical problems) before going over to the second stage to see a pretty awesome Hidden Cameras set.

10 The Scratch Perry gig was most memorable in terms of craziness. After his band came on and started up a groove, The Upsetter made his way out in his own time, pulling his carry-on luggage behind him, like he'd taken a wrong turn inside the airport terminal and had ended up on a stage – a turn of events that he seemed to neither expect nor be surprised by. (I could be wrong, but in my imagination, most of his days probably work on that principle.) Lodged in his hat was a burning incense stick, so he'd leave a trail of smoke wafting behind him as he moved across the stage. The music was murky and weird, and the vocal sometimes veered into bizarre stream of consciousness rambling, but it was pretty excellent. Genius is as genius does, I guess.

The Orchestra Baobab was excellent in a different way, the band playing their contained rumba groove that just simmered throughout. It's always a thrill to see a crew of life-timers who, despite decades of technique and nothing to prove, play with rockin' joy and calm ferocity. Plus there was much excellentness from Barthelemy Attisso, the band's guitarist who had given up his instrument for over a decade to become a lawyer, only to be called back when suddenly the world caught up to what they were doing in the '70's.

11 This probably also explains why when this teenaged dude with tragic haircut and his buddy were rooting around through the cassettes on sale on the shelf beside me, I reached over and pulled out the copy of Tom Verlaine's Flash Light. I pointed at it, gave it a thumbs-up and handed it to him. He nodded, like strangers just handed him cassettes all the time and added it to the stack he was carrying (containing something by Yes and a bunch of Wagner). Don't let it be said that I don't do my bit for the youth of today.

12 It seems a bit like I was mixing my cultural metaphors, but I meant nothing but respect when I poured some brandy on the ground before I took a swig.

13 But not so fluently that I didn't stop immediately translating myself. I vaguely recall making a lot of pithy statements like, "mais qui est la vrai auteur – who's the real author here?" and "c'est pour le merde – it's all for shit, hey?"

14 Recalled banter: "Fuck Proposition 18 right in the face!"

15 This name is amusingly un-punk, but it does give him licence, somehow, to wear trucker caps.

16 For the purposes of full disclosure (although it dilutes the dramatic gravitas) I will report that I did, later on in the evening, manage to engage said chick in a between-sets conversation that was not entirely awkward.

Statement of Purpose

"I'm getting too old for this shit," I sometimes think to myself when I look around whichever dank room I'm standing in, waiting for the band to come on. I went to around 80 gigs last year, which seems both insanely too much and way too few.

It occurs to me that my life isn't always going to be like this. At some point, one presumes, something or other will cause me to "grow up" and find other things to do with my time. Which I'm neither looking particularly forward to nor dreading.

I've also realized that if I don't make more of an effort to make contemporaneous notes of things, I'll simply forget all the telling details that made things interesting. I laboured to pull together a "most fondly remembered gigs of 2008" list, and it was a struggle to be able to recount what made an event special if I hadn't written down shortly thereafter. So: this.